Umaga goes out on a high

TANA Umaga closed the book yesterday on an international career which made him arguably the most successful captain in All Blacks history when he announced his retirement from Test rugby.

While the World Cup eluded him - he never had the chance to skipper New Zealand during a tournament - the unprecedented success of 2005 sets him apart from his predecessors. Only David Kirk, the first and only All Black captain to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy, comes close to challenging him.

Last year's annus mirabilis for Umaga's New Zealand included one of the most convincing Test series whitewashes ever inflicted on the British and Irish Lions, took in Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup triumphs and concluded with only the second ever All Black 'Grand Slam' tour of the home nations. Such insurpassable triumphs helped persuade Umaga that now was a good time to walk away. At a press conference in Wellington yesterday, he said: "It's been a tough decision, but I think the time is right for me, for my family, and for the team.

"After the achievements last year and the development that is going on within the team, it is a good time to step down. I am looking forward to spending more time with my family and to putting something back into Wellington rugby, the Hurricanes and the community."

There appears to be several reasons why Umaga has decided to retire now. Firstly, he made clear in the summer that he would only continue if he felt he could play in the 2007 World Cup. He is aware the next two years are all about building a strong squad capable of winning the tournament, with no room for hangers-on. After a gruelling 12 months - and more Tests planned for 2006 - the 32-year-old knows better than anyone that his ability to perform consistently at international level is reducing.

Another factor not to be underestimated is his annoyance at the public scrutiny of him and his family in New Zealand. Umaga is a principled family man, protective of his wife Rochelle, son Cade, 12, and daughters Gabrielle, 5, and Lily-Kate, 16 months. He developed a father-like quality among the All Blacks due to his desire to get to know every player personally, even asking for introductions to their families, and he works with New Zealand's Ministry of Education in a role to help parents become more involved in their children's education.

He struggled with the criticism directed towards him and team-mate Keven Mealamu after they seriously injured the Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll with a 'spear' tackle during the first Test in Christchurch. He was also left frustrated by the New Zealand media's clamour to know when he would retire after what proved to be his last Test match, against Scotland at Murrayfield in November.

"While I was away, people went up to my parents," he revealed. "It disappoints me that people think they can go over there and just get a quick comment about my life. It's quite intrusive. It's not the reason I'm giving this up, but it's one of the reasons why I don't like this part of the job. I have to live with it, but those people have to live with me not probably dealing with them anymore.

"I didn't ever get used to it, being out there all the time. It actually grew me as a person to understand what it's like to be out there in the public eye."

Edinburgh coach Todd Blackadder captained the All Blacks ten times so understands the pressures that goes with leading the world's greatest rugby team. He explained: "Rugby is such a huge part of New Zealand life that the pressures on the All Blacks captain are immense - the public profile is bigger now than ever and Tana has been as big as Jonah Lomu this past year.

"He has done a remarkable job because there has been a lot of change recently as the All Blacks look forward to the 2007 World Cup, and he has been at the centre of bringing new players through, working with them and getting new blends, while all the time living up to the expectation that goes with the All Blacks of winning every game.

"I remember Tana playing for me as captain and what I liked about him then, and still do now, is that he is just himself all the time; he never understates or exaggerates anything. I thought he dealt with the whole O'Driscoll affair very well. Yes, it was dangerous what he did, but I know Tana and it would never have been deliberate. It's not in him.

"But I think he is going out at the right time. He's been a great player and one of the very best All Blacks. He has been a key part of providing the launch pad that New Zealand rugby has needed to bring on the next generation and if they do go on and win the next World Cup there will be a debt of gratitude owed to Tana."

It is quite an achievement for a Wellingtonian born to Samoan parents, who grew up with the simple desire to see how far he could go in rugby. Jonathan Falefasa 'Tana' Umaga was born in Lower Hutt, the same town as Scotland internationals John and Martin Leslie, and Martin and Tana remain close friends.

Umaga started out using his typically Samoan low centre of gravity in rugby league and represented the Junior Kiwis before following his brother Mike, a Samoan cap, to union and touring with Jonah Lomu in 1994. He made his New Zealand Test debut in 1997, inheriting Lomu's No11 jersey when the wing was ill, and played 17 more Tests before moving to centre.

The dreadlocked Umaga was never a speed merchant, but possessed a great blend of sharpness, ability to read the game and power in the tackle which made him a widely-feared player in the 12 or 13 jersey. In 2004, Umaga became the first New Zealander of Pacific Island parentage to captain the All Blacks, going on to win 18 of his 21 Tests as skipper, and he finished with an impressive record of 36 tries in 74 Test matches.

He was also the first New Zealander to receive the Pierre de Coubertin Trophy for Fair Play, when he ignored the ball to assist Welsh player Colin Charvis, who swallowed his tongue during a Test match in 2003. Umaga's place in history is assured, but his love of the game remains strong. He will continue to play for Wellington and the Hurricanes in the NPC and forthcoming Super 14, but deflected rumours that he was set for a lucrative move to England to join Leicester or Harlequins. He added: "I don't fancy going away and leaving my extended family and a great environment to bring up my children."